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Chapter Forty-Five

"I take it we haven't heard back from Admiral Byng, Bill?"

"No, Ma'am," Commander Edwards agreed.

"Somehow, I rather thought you would have mentioned it if we had," Michelle said with a faint smile. Then she turned back to Adenauer and Tersteeg. "What's the status on their impellers?"

The ops officer and the EWO had maneuvered the Ghost Rider platforms closer to the Solarian ships to keep an eye on them. Now Adenauer looked up in response to Michelle's question, and her expression was unhappy.

"We were trying to get close enough to get a read off their nodes, Ma'am, but I don't think we needed to bother. We just picked up first-stage initiation on their wedges, and they're already turning on attitude thrusters. They're headed out."

"Frigging idiots," Michelle muttered under her breath, once again feeling the temptation to let God handle the sorting chore.

"All right, Bill," she sighed aloud. "I suppose we have to give these dumbasses one more try. Prepare to record."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Michelle glanced up at the master plot while she waited. Her force had been headed in-system for forty-three minutes now, accelerating towards the planet at a steady six hundred and three gravities, which left the Nikes with seventy gravities in reserve. Their closing velocity was up to 21,271 KPS, and they'd reduced the range from just over one hundred and ninety-two million kilometers to just under a hundred and fifty-six million. Given that geometry, the effective powered envelope of the Mark 23s in the pods riding the outsides of her ships' hulls was well over seventy-two million kilometers against a stationary target, and the effective range against Byng and his ships would only increase as he accelerated towards them and increased their closing velocity.

"Live mike, Ma'am," Edwards told her, and she nodded to him and turned back from the plot to face the pickup.

"Your time limit has expired, Admiral Byng," she said coldly, without preamble. "I can only assume from your current heading and the fact that your impellers are about to come on-line that you intend to engage me. I caution you against doing so. Be advised that I have the capacity to destroy your ships from far beyond any range at which you can possibly threaten us. Be further advised that if you do not immediately cease your attempt to close with my ships or flee the system rather than accept my government's requirements and standing down, I will demonstrate that capability to you in a fashion which not even you can ignore. Gold Peak, clear."

"Clean recording, Ma'am," Edwards confirmed after a moment.

"Then send it," Michelle said flatly.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am."

Eight minutes and forty-three seconds after it had been transmitted, Michelle's message reached SLNSJean Bart, and Josef Byng's face darkened with fury as Willard MaCuill directed the message to his com.

That arrogant little bitch! Who the hell does she think she is, talking to metalking to the Solarian League—that way?

He felt his jaw muscles aching from the effort of restraining his snarl, and his nostrils flared wide as he sucked in a deep, angry breath. There was dead silence on the flag bridge for several seconds, then MaCuill cleared his throat.

"Will there be any response, Sir?" the communications officer asked in a painfully neutral voice.

"Oh, yes," Byng grated. "There'll be aresponse, all right, Willard! But not with any com transmissions!"

"Yes, Sir."

MaCuill turned back to his own displays, his shoulders tight, and Byng felt a fresh spasm of anger. Was his own staff starting to buy into the ridiculous claims about the Manties' "invincible weaponry?" He started to snarl something at MaCuill, then made himself stifle the urge. The last thing he needed was to begin sounding like some hysterical old woman himself!

"Sir," Karlotte Thim'ar said in a very careful tone, "Captain Mizawa would like to speak with you."

"Oh, I bet he does," Byng growled. "I don't suppose he's screening to apologize for reading mail that wasn't addressed to him?" he added, twitching his head towards his now-blank com.

"I'm sorry, Sir," MaCuill said, "but the Manties' last message wasn't addressed specifically to you. It carried a general heading . . . to all ships, Sir."

Byng's face took on a dangerously mottled coloration, and he glared at the communications officer.

"And why the hell didn't you mention that little fact to me before?" he snarled.

"I'm sorry, Sir," MaCuill repeated, "but the address block was displayed in the message header. I . . . assumed you'd seen it."

Byng bit back an even more furious response, then closed his eyes, clenched his folded hands tightly behind him, and tried to suppress the anger boiling inside him. After several moments, he opened his eyes once again and smiled tightly at Thim'ar.

"Well, I suppose that if the good captain wants to speak to me, the least I can do is take his call," he told the chief of staff, and slid back into his command chair once more. He paused for one more second, then tapped the acceptance key.

"Yes, Captain?" He kept his voice as neutral as possible, although he knew it was still giving away more of his inner fury than he wanted it to.

"Admiral." It was obvious Mizawa was working hard at keeping his own voice nonconfrontational, which only made Byng perversely more angry as the flag captain continued. "I realize you and I haven't exactly seen eye-to-eye on several matters of late, but I strongly urge you to consider the possibility that this Admiral Gold Peak really has the capability she's talking about."

"Captain, that's ridiculous," Byng replied. "I know about the rumors of impossible range on Manty missiles. Good God, I did read the ONI appreciations before I headed out here, you know! And I know the missiles Technodyne deployed in Monica had enhanced drive systems to increase their range. For that matter I know that R and D back home has been looking into adopting the same concept for some time now. But I also know how big the Technodyne missiles were, and so should you, if you've read the same reports. That's the main reason we haven't pursued the same concept ourselves, you know. We simply don't have the magazine capacity, or shipboard launchers big enough, to accommodate anything with drives the size of the ones Technodyne used in Monica . . .  and neither does anyone else! We saw the launch tubes on these damned big-assed 'battlecruisers' of theirs at Monica, if you'll recall. There's no way in the galaxy they could fire a missile that size out of those launchers! I'll grant you that their wallers might—conceivably—have the tubes for them, but no way in hell does one of these ships have them! And we've got Javelins in the magazines, not those crap Pilums Technodyne supplied to Monica. Not to mention the fact that none of the Monicans had Halo, either."

"Sir, I realize all of that's true," Mizawa said. "But the Javelin is still a single-drive missile. A damned good one, yes, but only single-drive. If the reports about the Manties' cruisers at Monica having multi-drive weapons are accurate, then these people certainly have them, too."

Byng forced himself not to roll his eyes in exasperation. As he'd just pointed out, the system defense missiles Technodyne had supplied to Monica had been too big for any shipboard launcher, and they'd been single-drive missiles. Now he wanted to put something big enough to mount multiple drives through a launch tube? Good God! The man wasn't just paranoid, he was a frigging idiot! Even a Frontier Fleet officer should have been bright enough to figure out that something the size of a cruiser-range missile tube couldn't possibly fire something even bigger than those Technodyne birds!

He'd obviously given away at least some of his reaction, despite his best efforts not to, because Mizawa's expression tightened even further.

"I'm aware of the size argument against the idea, Sir. But, with all due respect, look at that last message of theirs. It was sent before we'd actually brought our wedges up, but they knew exactly what we were doing. That means they do have FTL recon capability, and they're using it. In my judgment, especially coupled with their observed acceleration rates, that demonstrates that at least a sizable chunk of the reports about Manty capabilities which ONI has been discounting are actually accurate."

His eyes burned into Byng's. He'd very carefully refrained from mentioning Askew's memos, but they were there, between them, and his voice turned harder, harsher.

"Given that evidence—the proof that ONI's been wrong in at least some of its assessments—I think we have to take the possibility of the sort of missile ranges they're talking about seriously."

"Well that makes one of us, Captain," Byng said sarcastically, before he could restrain himself. Mizawa flushed, and Byng shook his head. "I apologize for that last remark," he made himself say. "There's enough going on to make anyone tense, but that's no reason for me to take it out on you."

From Mizawa's expression, it was obvious he knew Byng's apology was strictly pro forma, but he gave a jerky nod, and Byng forced himself to smile.

"I've noted your concerns, Captain. On the other hand, we have twenty-two ships, seventeen of them battlecruisers, to only nineteen, total, Manties. Admittedly, their 'battlecruisers' are bigger than ours—probably tougher, too, for that matter—but each of ours has as many missile launchers as one of theirs, and they only have six, and their heavy cruisers only have twenty-tube broadsides! That gives us a significant advantage in tubes and an even bigger one in throw weight. And, with all due respect, I'm not prepared to discount intelligence appreciations formulated by analysts with access to all the information coming to us on the basis of appreciations generated independently, with partial information, by officers who—justifiably, I might add—have every reason to adopt pessimistic assumptions in order to avoid underestimating a potential enemy's capabilities. Granted, their acceleration rates are higher than Intelligence predicted, but that single point aside, there is absolutely no evidence, aside from apocryphal accounts, that the Manties have the capabilities you're ascribing to them, and I cannot in good conscience permit a third-rate neobarb navy with delusions of grandeur to even attempt to dictate terms to the Solarian League Navy. The precedent would be disastrous from any foreign policy perspective, and the insult to the honor of the Fleet would be intolerable."

"Sir, I'm not suggesting you cave in to their demands. I'm simply suggesting that it may be time to try negotiating a stand down on both sides. They say they've sent a diplomatic note to Meyers. All right, what if we were to refuse to surrender our ships to them but agreed to return to orbit and maintain the status quo here in New Tuscany while we sent a dispatch boat back to Meyers to seek Commissioner Verrochio's instructions? If they accept, then the decision of how we respond to their demands legitimately becomes a political decision to be made by the highest local political authority. And if this Gold Peak accepts, it would also give Commissioner Verrochio an opportunity to dispatch reinforcements in the event that—as would almost certainly be the case—he decides that we are correct to reject her demands. At the very least, it would allow us to play for time while—"

"Any negotiations such as you're suggesting would immediately be seen as a sign of weakness by Gold Peak," Byng interrupted. "In my opinion, she's running a colossal bluff—in fact, that's probably the reason she's accelerating so hard; to convince us that all the wild stories about Manticore's 'technical superiority' are true—and I'm not going to encourage her to believe it's working. For that matter, even assuming for a moment that they have the weapons capability you're worrying about, she'd have to be not simply a lunatic but stupid beyond belief to pull the trigger on us! I don't care what kind of magic bullets they've got over there, Captain. Hell, they could have every single thing in Commodore Thurgood's most pessimistic assessment! That doesn't change the fact that it's the Solarian League they're fucking around with, and if they fire on Solarian battlecruisers in neutral space, they really will have an act of war on their hands. Do you seriously think any bunch of neobarbs is going to deliberately create that kind of situation? Especially when they're already at war with another bunch of neobarbs who can't wait to wipe them out?"

"I didn't say it would be smart of them, Sir. I only said they may have the capability to do it. And, respectfully, Sir, if we give them what they initially demanded, it will be an act of war against the League, anyway. It could—and should—be construed that way, at any rate. They're obviously willing to risk that, so what makes you assume they aren't willing to risk a different act of war?"

"Captain," Byng said frostily, "it's obvious you and I are not in agreement. Accordingly, I have to ask you whether or not our disagreementruns deep enough that you are unwilling to execute my orders?"

"Admiral," Mizawa said, his voice equally frigid, "I am prepared to execute any lawful order I may receive. With respect, however, one of my functions as your flag captain is to offer my best judgment and advice."

"I realize that. If, however, you are sufficiently . . . uncomfortable with my proposed course of action, then I will relieve you—without prejudice, of course—of your present duties."

Their eyes locked through the electronic medium of the ship's communications system. Tension hummed and vibrated between them for several seconds, but then Mizawa shook his head. It was a jerky gesture, hard with his own suppressed anger.

"Admiral, if you choose to relieve me, that's clearly your privilege. I do not, however, request relief."

"Very good, Captain. But in that case, I have other matters which require my attention. Byng, clear."

"Still no sign of sanity breaking out over there, I see," Michelle murmured to Captain Lecter.

Twenty-five minutes had passed since her second message to Byng, and the Solarian battlecruisers' velocity had increased to 7,192 KPS. Her own ships' velocity was up to over thirty thousand kilometers per second, giving them a closing velocity of better than thirty-seven thousand KPS, and the range was down to a little over one hundred and thirteen million kilometers.

"Not so anyone would notice, at any rate," her chief of staff agreed equally quietly. The two of them stood before the master plot, gazing into its depths. Around them,Artemis' flag deck was quiet, almost hushed, as the men and women manning their stations concentrated on their duties.

"You know," Lecter continued, "I've studied our dossier on Byng until my eyes ache, and I still can't figure out how much of him is bluster, how much is raw arrogance, and how much of it is simply sheer stupidity." She shook her head. "Do you think he really wants to fight, or is he just going to play chicken with us while he tries to break past and hyper out?"

"I don't know, and it doesn't matter," Michelle said grimly. "Our orders are clear enough, and so are the alternatives I spelled out to him. And I don't have any intention of waiting until he fires first."

"Excuse me, Ma'am," Dominica Adenauer said, and Michelle turned towards her, eyebrows raised.

"CIC's just picked up a status change," the operations officer said. "The Sollies have deployed some sort of passive defensive system."

"Such as?" Michelle asked, crossing to Adenauer's console and gazing down at the ops officer's displays.

"Hard to say, really, Ma'am. Whatever it is, Max and I don't think they've brought it fully on-line yet. What it looks like is a variation on the tethered decoy concept. From what the recon platforms can tell us, each of their ships has just deployed a half-dozen or so captive platforms on either flank. They have to have a defensive function, and I don't think they're big enough to carry the sort of on-board point defense stations our Keyhole platforms do. I don't want to get too overconfident, but it looks to me like they've got to be decoys, and we already know Solly stealth technology is pretty damned good. If their decoys are equally good, this is probably going to degrade our accuracy considerably, especially at extended ranges."

"Where is Apollo when you need it?" Michelle asked half-whimsically.

"When you say 'degrade our accuracy considerably,' do you have any sort of guesstimate for just how considerably we're talking about?" Lecter asked.

"Not really, Ma'am," Tersteeg replied for both of them. "Until we've seen it in action—and confirmed that it actually is a decoy system, for that matter—there's no way we could give you any real estimate."

Lecter grimaced, although the response was hardly a surprise, and looked at Michelle.

"Do you want to let the range drop a little lower than we'd originally planned, Ma'am?"

"I don't know." Michelle frowned and tugged at the lobe of her right ear as she considered Lecter's question.

ONI and BuWeaps had evaluated the weapons aboard the Solarian-built battlecruisers captured intact at Monica. The energy weapons, although individually smaller and lighter than was current Manticoran practice, had been quite good. The passive defensive systems had been good, as well, although not up to Manticoran standards, but the missiles—and counter-missiles—had been another story entirely, and the software support for the ships' sensors had been sadly out of date by those same standards. For that matter, the sensors themselves were little, if any, better than the hardware the RMN had deployed at the beginning of the First Havenite War, twenty-odd T-years before.

There was some division of opinion among the analysts as to whether or not the prize ships' electronics reflected the best the Sollies had. The standard Solarian policy for supplying military vessels to allies and dependencies had always been to provide them with downgraded, "export versions" of critical weapons technologies, which suggested the same thing had been done with the battlecruisers intended for Roberto Tyler. Except, of course, that those battlecruisers had come from recent service with Frontier Fleet, which should have meant they carried close to first-line, current-generation technology, and a bunch of outlaws like the ones at Technodyne probably wouldn't have gone to the expense of replacing that technology with less capable versions for what was already a thoroughly illegal transaction.

For the moment, BuWeaps had decided to split the difference and assume that everything they'd seen from Monica represented a minimum benchmark. The existence of the defensive system Adenauer and Tersteeg had just described—assuming their analysis was accurate—suggested that that decision had been wise, since none of the ships at Monica had been equipped with anything like it. But that also suggested it would probably be unwise to rely too heavily on the demonstrated range and acceleration rates of the anti-ship missiles those battlecruisers had carried, as well.

Those missiles' powered range envelope from rest generated a maximum range of just over 5,900,000 km, with a terminal velocity of 66,285 KPS. Given their current closing velocity, that equated to a range at launch of a shade better than 12,680,000 kilometers, whereas the Mark 23 had a range at launch of 85,930,000 given the same geometry. Even the Mark 16 had a range at launch of well over 42 million kilometers under current conditions. So even if she assumed Byng's battlecruisers carried missiles twice as capable as those captured at Monica, she still had better than three times his maximum powered range on her Mark 16s, much less her Mark 23s.

"What will our closing velocity be at forty million klicks?" she asked Adenauer, and the ops officer punched numbers.

"Approximately five-four-point-seven thousand KPS, Ma'am. We'll be there in roughly twenty-six minutes."

"Um."

Michelle pulled harder on her ear lobe while she did the math. At that velocity, the Sollies would cross through her Mark 16s' range to her ships in about thirteen minutes. At one launch every eighteen seconds her shipboard launchers could fire forty-three missiles each in that timeframe, and she had six hundred and twenty tubes aboard her Nikes and Saganami-Cs, alone. That worked out to better than twenty-six thousand missiles, which she suspected—decoys or no—would be a fairly significant case of overkill.

On the other hand, the Mark 23s from the pods limpeted to the exterior of her ships' hulls would have a powered envelope at launch of well over ninety-six million kilometers, assuming the target's acceleration held constant, which would let her she could open fire with almost fifty million kilometers sooner. Her accuracy would be lower, but . . . 

"What will our closing velocity be at eighty million klicks?"

"Four-six-point-zero-five thousand KPS," Adenauer replied. "We'll reach that range in almost exactly thirteen minutes."

"Given that geometry, what do our Mark 23 envelopes look like?"

"Assuming constant target acceleration, a two-drive burn would give us . . ." Adenauer punched numbers ". . . just over four-six-point-one million klicks at launch. An all-up burn would make it about nine-one-four million."

"Thank you."

Michelle folded her hands behind her and walked slowly back across to the main plot to stand gazing into its depths. Lecter followed her, standing quietly at her right shoulder, waiting while she thought. After what seemed like hours but probably wasn't actually more than a handful of seconds, Michelle turned her head to look at Lecter.

"We'll send Byng one more message," she said. "That's it. If he doesn't stop this horse shit after that, we'll go with William Tell at forty-five million klicks."

For a moment, it looked as if Lecter were going to say something, but then she simply nodded and contented herself with a simple, "Yes, Ma'am," and Michelle smiled faintly.

It is sort of a balancing act, isn't it, Cindy? she thought dryly. Unless I'm prepared to go ahead and kill all of them, anyway—which, while tempting, would probably upset Beth just a smidgen, given the foreign policy implications and all—firing at that range is going to tell the Sollies a lot about our capabilities, and that could very well come under the heading of a Bad Thing. If this situation turns as nasty as I expect it to, given the fact that Byng is obviously even stupider than I thought, I'm sure the Admiralty would prefer to keep them ignorant of the Mark 23's real reach for as long as we can. But I'll still be holding over twenty million klicks of range in reserve, and the best way to keep this situation from going completely south on everyone is to finish up with the lowest possible casualties here in New Tuscany.

In her more pessimistic moments, she was certain the situation was already beyond retrieval, but she wasn't ready to simply go ahead and surrender to the inevitable despite the fact that, in many ways, the wholesale massacre of Byng's entire force would actually be a far simpler proposition. Instead, she was faced with the problem of convincing the idiots to surrender before she had to kill them, and that was far trickier. If she could ever break through the typically Solarian assumption of inevitable superiority, then Byng—or his successor in command, at least—might prove more amenable. That was the real reason she'd come in at such a high rate of acceleration. She wanted them thinking about that, wondering what other technological advantages she might have tucked up her sleeve. And if she had to fire on them at all, then the greater the range at which she did so, the more likely they were to recognize how outclassed they were before it was too late . . . for them.

And there's always the other factor, she thought grimly. If we open fire at sixty million and they don't begin decelerating immediately, it would take over twelve hours for us to match velocities with them. And they'd be across the hyper limit and into hyper in an hour and forty minutes. So if we can't convince them to stop and begin immediately decelerating themselves, I'll have no choice but to take them all out before they pull out of range.

She glanced at the time display, considering when to send her next—and final—message to Josef Byng.

"Admiral Byng," the face of the woman on the com display might have been chipped from obsidian, and her voice was harder still, "I have warned you twice of the consequences of failing to comply with my requirements. If you do not immediately reverse your heading at maximum deceleration, preparatory to reentering New Tuscany orbit, as per my directions, I will open fire. You have five minutes from the receipt of this message. There will be no additional warnings."

Byng glared at the display, but he was through talking to the impertinent bitch. Maybe she did have better missiles than he did, but they couldn't be enough better to back up her preposterous threats, and with Halo and the other recent upgrades in his anti-missile defenses, the odds were overwhelming that most of his ships would survive to break past her, no matter what she did. She simply didn't have enough tubes for any other outcome. And once his task force was across the hyper limit, running free and clear, her days—and the days of her wretched little "Star Kingdom"—would be numbered. There could be only one response from the Solarian League Navy for something like this, and Manticore couldn't possibly stave off the vengeful avalanche headed its way.

"Deploy the pods," Michelle said quietly, watching the time display tick down towards Byng's deadline.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Deploying pods now," Dominica Adenauer replied, and the task group's acceleration rate dropped as the pods which had been tractored tight against its ships' hulls moved beyond the perimeter of their impeller wedges.

The battlecruisers' Keyhole platforms were already deployed, but the Keyholes' mass was low enough that the Nikes' acceleration curves hadn't been significantly affected. Deploying the missile pods, still tractored to their motherships but clear of those motherships' sidewalls (and wedges), was another matter entirely, and the task group's acceleration dropped from six hundred and three gravities to only five hundred and eighty.

"Flip us, Sterling," Michelle told Commander Casterlin.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Reversing heading now."

The entire task group flipped, putting its sterns towards Byng's battlecruisers and beginning to decelerate. Even with the pods deployed, Michelle's command had an advantage of almost a hundred gravities, and the rate of closure began to slow.

"Execute William Tell on the tick, Dominica."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Commander Adenauer depressed a key, locking in the firing commands and sequence, then sat back. "William Tell enabled and locked, Ma'am."

"Very good," Michelle said, and leaned back in her command chair, watching the last few seconds speed into eternity.

Josef Byng sat in his own command chair, watching another time display count down towards zero, and his belly was a knotted lump of tension.

Captain Mizawa had tried one last time to convince him to lie down, like a dog rolling belly-up to show its submission. Now they were no longer speaking, for there was nothing to speak about.

It was easy for Mizawa to put forward his arguments, Byng thought resentfully. Mizawa wouldn't be the one censored for cowardice. Mizawa wouldn't be the first Solarian flag officer in history to surrender to an enemy force. Mizawa wouldn't be known as the officer who'd rolled over for a batch of neobarbs without firing even a single shot.

It's not just "easy" for him, a voice said in Byng's brain. It's also his way of making sure I'll never be in a position to hammer him like the disloyal, traitorous bastard he is. Well, it's not going to happen, Captain—trust me! It's not going to be that simple for you.

Despite his fury at Mizawa, he'd come to the conclusion that there probably was at least a little something to the flag captain's arguments. Oh, there was no way the Manties had the magic missiles Mizawa was yammering about, but they could have substantially better missiles than Intelligence had suggested. If they did, it was entirely likely he was going to lose at least a few ships on his way out of the system. That would be regrettable, of course, but with the recent upgrades in the SLN missile defense and so many targets to spread their fire between, it was extremely unlikely that the Manties could get through with enough missiles to cripple more than a handful—half a dozen at the most. And they were only Frontier Fleet units. They could be replaced relatively easily, and once the survivors were past the Manties, the decisiveness of Byng's actions would be obvious. As the admiral who'd cut his way past the Manties to carry home word of their unprovoked attack on the Solarian League, he'd be immunized against the sort of wild allegations Mizawa had threatened to make about events in New Tuscany. In fact, he'd be well positioned to crush Mizawa, after all, and he couldn't deny that he'd take a sweetly savage satisfaction when the time came.

Of course—

"Missile separation!" Ingeborg Aberu announced suddenly. "Multiple missile separations! Range, forty-five million kilometers. Missile acceleration four-six-thousand KPS2! Estimated flight time at constant acceleration, five-point-seven minutes."

"Missile Defense Aegis Five!" Byng's snapped command was automatic, a response which never had to consult his forebrain at all . . . which was fortunate, since his forebrain wasn't working very well at the moment.

My God, she actually didit! She actually launched missiles at the Solarian Navy! I didn't think anyone could bethat crazy! Doesn't she know where this has to end?

Yet even as that thought ripped through him, there was another, one that was darker and more terrifying by far. Gold Peak wouldn't have launched from that far out unless she genuinely had the range to score on his ships, and that meant Mizawa's concerns hadn't been so much blathering nonsense after all.

The range at launch was over two and a half light-minutes, but with a closing velocity of 53,696 KPS, the geometry meant the Mark 23's maximum powered envelope was well over ninety-five million kilometers. Even a Mark 16, with only a pair of drive systems, would have had a powered envelope of almost forty-nine million kilometers . . . which meant her Mark 23s could reach their targets without ever activating their third drive system and still have the necessary endurance for final attack maneuvers. That was the real reason Michelle Henke had closed to that range before firing. It would give her ample opportunity to make her point, but she could do so while concealing a full third of the MDMs' powered endurance. At the same time, she wanted to finish this without using her broadside launchers at all, if she could. No doubt the Solarian survivors—If there are any, her mind supplied grimly—would figure out that she'd used pod-launched missiles, and that was the way she preferred it. If the hammer was really coming down, she wanted the Mark 16's existence to come as a complete surprise to the first Solarian officer unfortunate enough to face it in combat.

"Sir, CIC estimates that these things were launched from pods, not tubes." Ingeborg Aberu's voice was harsh, tight with fear and also with something else. Something plaintive, almost petulant. An anger stoked by the sudden realization that the Star Kingdom of Manticore really could produce technology well in advance of anything the Solarian League had even considered deploying. "They must have had them tractored inside their wedges. That's why their acceleration dropped just before they launched; they had to deploy them clear of the wedge perimeter."

"Understood," Byng replied tersely.

At least I was right about that much, he thought bitterly. They can't launch things this big from the broadside tubes we saw at Monica . . . not that that's going to make things any better. Unless they don't have very many of the damned pods available.

"Sir," Aberu said a moment later, her voice flatter than it had been, "CIC is projecting that all their missiles have been targeted on a single unit." She turned her head to look at him.

"On us," she said.

Warden Mizawa swore viciously as Ursula Zeiss reported the same conclusion to him.

That fucking idiot! That stupid, arrogant, Battle Fleet prick! Now he's going to get all of us killed, and for absolutely nothing!

"Time to impact five minutes," Zeiss said harshly.

"Stand by missile defense," Mizawa said, and glanced into the display which showed him the face of Hildegard Bourget, in Command Beta. From her tight, bitter expression, she'd obviously guessed exactly the same thing he had.

Looks like getting you off the ship worked out even better than I'd expected, Maitland, a corner of his brain thought even now. Sorry I never told you personally what a job you did for me, but I guess I'm not going to have the chance to make up for it. Good luck, boy—and watch your ass! The Navy's going to need you, I think.

God, I wish I'd been wrong, Maitland Askew thought sickly, his face white and clenched as he watched the master tactical plot on Admiral Sigbee's flag bridge and thought of all the men and women he knew aboard Josef Byng's flagship. God, why couldn't I have been wrong?!

Despite all of the simulations BuWeaps and BuTrain had been able to put together after examining the hardware captured at Monica, Michelle and Dominica Adenauer were only too well aware that their knowledge of actual Solarian capabilities was limited, to say the least. They had no real meter stick for the toughness of the Sollies' missile defenses, so they'd decided to err on the side of caution. Each of their Nikes had eighty "flat pack" pods limpeted to her hull, and each of theSaganami-Cs had forty. That gave Michelle a total of nine hundred and sixty pods, or the next best thing to ten thousand missiles. Operating on her assumption that the Sollies' actual defensive capability was twice that of the captured vessels examined at Monica, Michelle had decided that two hundred and fifty of those missiles ought to do the trick. They might not destroy their target outright, but that was fine with her. In fact, she would really prefer that outcome. She wasn't the sort of homicidal maniac who enjoyed killing people, after all. She'd be more than willing to settle for demonstrating that she could destroy their vessels . . .  and she'dbe delighted if that convinced them to throw in the towel before she actually had to.

The Solarian League Navy had been the premier navy of the explored galaxy for centuries. Indeed, no one could remember a time when it hadn't been acknowledged as the most powerful fleet in existence. But that very preeminence had worked to undermine its efficiency. There was, quite simply, no enemy for it to take seriously, no peer against which to measure itself, no Darwinian incentive to identify weaknesses and correct them.

The nature of the Solarian League itself, dominated by the permanent bureaucrats who actually ran it rather than the political leadership which had long since lost any power to rein in those bureaucrats, was another factor. As with the civilian bureaucracies, the naval bureaucracy had become immovably entrenched, and the internecine warfare between competing departments for limited funding had been both intense and brutal. Funding decisions were fought out on the basis of who had the most clout, not the greatest need, and owed very little indeed to any impartial analysis of actual operational requirements. So it probably wasn't very surprising that the fundamental assumption of Solarian technological supremacy in all things meant R&D's budget was the smallest of all. After all, since the SLN's technology was already better than anyone else's, why waste money on that when it could more profitably be spent on prestigious things like additional superdreadnoughts . . . or quietly eased into the private banking accounts of Navy procurement officials?

All of which helped to explain why the SLN had also been one of the galaxy's most conservative navies. With thousands of ships in commission, and more thousands mothballed in reserve, its margin of superiority over any conceivable opponent had been utterly decisive. Which meant getting money even to build new ships, or to radically overhaul and modernize existing ones, had always been a difficult exercise. As one consequence, the SLN had been slow to recognize the potential of the laser head, and even slower to adopt it. And because no one had ever used similar weapons against it, its evaluation of the threat the new weapon presented—and of the doctrinal changes necessary to defeat it—had lagged behind even its own hardware.

That lag was about to have serious repercussions for SLNSJean Bart.

"Those platforms are definitely decoys, Ma'am," Sherilyn Jeffers said flatly as she watched her displays. "They've spun up now, and Ghost Rider's giving us good data on them."

"What do they look like?" Naomi Kaplan asked.

"It looks as if the system as a whole is pretty good, Ma'am." The electronics warfare officer tapped a few keys, her eyes intent as she absorbed CIC's analysis of the reconnaissance platforms' datastream. "I'd say the individual platforms probably aren't quite as capable as what we've been seeing out of the Havenites lately, but their combined capability is actually better."

"Enough better that we should've used more missiles, do you think, Guns?" Kaplan asked.

"Oh, no, Ma'am." Abigail never looked up from her own displays and telemetry, and her smile could have frozen a star's heart. "Not that much better. In fact, I'd say their hardware is better than their doctrine. Either that, or their helmsmen are a little shaky. The interval between their units is at least three times anything the Havenites would accept, and that means the other ships' decoys are too far from the target to give it much cover. Our attack birds are going up against just its own platforms, and they aren't good enough to hack it against that much fire without a lot more support."

"Launching counter-missiles," Ursula Zeiss announced tersely, and Mizawa gave a jerky nod of acknowledgment.

He wasn't certain how much good the counter-missiles were going to do. The LIM-16F was a third again as capable as its predecessor, but even so, there wouldn't be time for a proper, layered defense. By the time they reached Jean Bart, the Manticoran missiles' closing velocity would be up to seventy-nine percent of the speed of light. The LIM-16's drive simply didn't have the endurance to hit the monsters the Manties had launched far enough out for an effective second launch at the same targets before they zipped right through the entire defensive envelope.

That's going to be a bitch for the laser clusters, too, he thought harshly. And they obviously know where that asshole Byng's been talking to them from. I can hardly fault them for wanting to kill his worthless ass, but I'd just as soon they hadn't decided to kill mine at the same time!

Despite everything—despite his own fear, despite his desperate concern for his ship and his crew, despite even his incandescent fury at Josef Byng—he actually smiled as the last sentence ran through his brain.

Aboard the attacking MDMs, computers consulted their pre-launch instructions, and suddenly jammers and decoys began to blossom. The Solarian counter-missiles were basically sound pieces of technology, but despite the SLN's belated awareness that something peculiar had happened to missile combat out in the Haven Sector, it was only beginning any sort of serious attempt to upgrade its active anti-missile defenses. Worse, neither the hardware nor the officers groping towards some new defense doctrine had profited from the last two decades of savage combat which had refined their Manticoran and Havenite counterparts. Their counter-missiles' software wasn't as good, the doctrine for their use was purely theoretical, without the harsh Darwinian input of survival, and the officers doing their best—not just aboard Jean Bart, but aboard all of Byng's battlecruisers—had no true concept of the threat environment into which they had intruded.

For all of its towering reputation, all of its size, all of the wealth and industrial power which stood behind it, the Solarian League Navy was simply outclassed. Even Frontier Fleet was accustomed only to dealing with pirates, the occasional slaver, or the privateer gone rogue. No one had destroyed a Solarian warship in combat in almost three centuries, and the complacency that had engendered had produced fatal consequences. Despite its preeminent position, the SLN was a second-rate power, inferior even to many of the Solarian system-defense forces it had derided as "amateurs" for so many decades. Far, far worse, the men and women of its officer corps didn't even recognize their own inferiority . . . and Josef Byng's ships found themselves matched against what was by almost any measure the most experienced, battle hardened, and technologically advanced fleet in space.


Chapter Forty-Four | Storm From the Shadows | * * *



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